Did you notice anything about the Gospels of the last three Sundays? In case you didn’t catch it, that makes three consecutive Sundays of Jesus telling parables about vineyards. Two weeks ago it was the owner who hired people throughout the day, and paid the latecomers the full wage just like the early risers. Last week it was the two sons he asked to work in his vineyard, the first of whom said “no” but changed his mind and went, and the second who said “yes” but didn’t follow through. And now this, making it a trilogy of vineyard parables, all from Matthew 20 and 21.
It’s a sort of climax of the three, this bracing story about the tenants of the vineyard who are not just wicked, but bizarrely, inexplicably so. This, the parable makes clear, is the story of the endlessly broken Covenant by God’s people. In the next chapter of Matthew Jesus will say, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill prophets and stone those who are sent to you!”
Finally, the owner of the vineyard sends his son, with the heartbreaking reasoning that “surely they will respect my son!” And you know what happens then.
So how should we take this story today? Does God’s Word perhaps give us this lesson so that we can judge others by it, and be glad that we’re better? That’s probably not it.
Aren’t we the ones who’ve been working all day supposedly under the landowner’s employ, living lives as Christian people? Aren’t we at least sometimes the second son who said he’d work in the vineyard but never really showed up? Aren’t we the tenants who haven’t produced the fruit we should? And what about the blood of the Son? If we’re going to say that Jesus died for our sins, and really mean it, then that’s on us too.
This is a message of conviction — but it isn’t a message of despair. There is a challenge in these words of Jesus, and we should take up that challenge with courage and joy. To be welcoming to the newcomers in the vineyard, to make sure every person who encounters us is made to feel like a full part of things, given the ‘full wage.’ We could do better at that. Let’s do better at that! To make our actions every day of the week more perfectly match the words we speak inside this church on the weekend… we could do better at that. Let’s do better at that! And to be tenants who represent the true Lord, the one who will return, the one in whose name we labor until he returns, to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God… let’s take up that challenge with courage and joy.
Because this parable isn’t really about our wickedness; it’s about the power of God’s mercy and love. It sounds like a bad ending: “What,” Jesus asks, “do you think the owner will do to those wicked tenants” who have killed his son? They give the obvious answer: “He will put those wicked men to a wicked end.” Well, yes. Of course he will….
… Right? It sounds like a bad ending, but this isn’t the ending. Notice that Jesus doesn’t accept that obvious answer. “Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘the stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone?’” hinting that when the Son is put to death, all is not lost after all.
It will be just a little later that Jesus answers the question that for now He leaves hanging: What will the Father do when they… when we… have killed His Son? And the answer to that question is the reason we are all here, the reason we are people of joy, the reason that we are people of unbreakable hope.